Autumn comes but once a year

Branch

The season turns. I wear a jacket for the first time in months, with a faint but definite sensation of relief. Strolling around in a shirt is fine—but where do you put things? In summer, I always have to carry a bag, not least because a good many shirt makers seem unacquainted with the concept of pockets. In any case: book, phone, notebook, memory sticks, black pen, red pen, pencil (rubber, pencil sharpener), tissues, sugar free sweets? What you need, my man, is a jacket.

We have had a week of uneasy, rather schizophrenic weather, some of it quite lively—though even the reported 70 m.p.h. around Avonmouth would likely seem a soothing breeze to the poor, battered Caribbean and southern United States. Yesterday, though, when I walked through the park, everything was so calm, bright, untroubled, so normal, that I experienced one of my apocalyptic moments. Unsurprisingly, these occur more often these days, given the last fifteen months or so and tend to consist of images of mayhem overlaying the scene in front of my eyes, the mown grass, trimmed flowerbeds, relaxed adults, playing children, gambolling dogs somehow provoking and evoking their opposite. That opposite is, of course, the ‘normal’ for a great many people: if not barrel bombs, snipers and nerve gas, then insufficient food, filthy water, inadequate shelter. And, always, the fear.

But in Bath, again, there are crowds of people at their ease, tourists from every part of the world as well as locals revelling in what may be one of the last really warm days of the year. We thread our way through, reach the bookshop, head directly home again.

New-Books

I revisit George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’, looking at his explanation of why the young British writers in the thirties had turned to Communism, one of which was ‘the softness and security of life in England itself’. ‘With all its injustices,’ Orwell went on, ‘England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality.’[1] This is still true, of course, though Orwell would find the current state of the country rather more worrying than he did then, I suspect, even though his essay was published in March 1940. The ordeal of the Blitz was still to come yet, bad as that was, other countries—Poland, Japan, China, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and, of course, Germany itself—fared far worse.

Yes, we have been lucky: but that luck has had its negative effects. One is an enduring fixation on the Second World War and a largely mythical version of our country’s role in it. This oddly skewed version of history, with its inflated view of our current relative importance in the world is constantly reinforced by the virulently anti-EU and anti-immigration sections of the press. Yet we also see, on an almost daily basis, a markedly tangential relation to reality displayed by some senior politicians, including cabinet ministers. Elsewhere, there seems a curious sense of paralysis and exhaustion, as if a period of extreme complexity and challenge were ended, rather than barely begun. Almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes, in the aftermath of the First World War, wrote:

Keynes_Consequences

‘In this autumn of 1919, in which I write, we are at the dead season of our fortunes. The reaction from the exertions, the fears, and the sufferings of the past five years is at its height. Our power of feeling or caring beyond the immediate questions of our own material well-being is temporarily eclipsed. The greatest events outside our own direct experience and the most dreadful anticipations cannot move us.’[2]

There are dreadful anticipations enough. But, as the saying goes, we must bet: we are in the game. Okay, not actually a saying: this is Pascal on the ‘wager’ of whether or not God exists. (The comments that ‘Reason cannot decide anything. There is an infinite chaos separating us’ seem worryingly topical.)[3]

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,

That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[4]

 

References

[1] George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, in A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 103.

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 278.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; the English phrasing is more that of John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[4] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

 

 

Trust; and his sister, Miss Trust

TSE-and-cat

(T. S. Eliot—a British subject, anyway—and a definite cat)

Being an Englishman of a certain age and type, I rarely speak to strangers in the street, though I always speak to cats—and strangers sometimes speak to me. Not long ago, a woman, elderly and rather frail, came out of her house as I was passing and asked me to open a tin of baked beans for her: the ring pull was stiff and her fingers were arthritic. In fact, the ring pull came off in my hand and, though she said she owned an old-fashioned tin opener and looked for it while I waited just inside her front door, she was unable to find it.

What struck me in retrospect was the fact of my being left for several minutes standing on my own inside her home. She’d never set eyes on me before. Did she trust me or was it more a matter of her not mistrusting anybody? Had she just been extraordinarily fortunate in her previous dealings with random strangers? Thinking of some of the people that I’d seen, and passed, within a few minutes’ walk of her house, I could only think it lucky for her that it was me, and not any of them, that she’d happened upon.

At the time of the horsemeat scandal about five years ago, someone on the news observed that trust takes a long time to establish but no time at all to lose. True enough, and true also of other things, which take so long to build up but can be so quickly screwed up, national health services, national public library systems and the like—civilisations, even.

zounds-room-already-full-devils
‘Zounds, the room is already full of devils!’ Gustave Doré, from Œuvres de François Rabelais (Works of François Rabelais), Paris, 1854. (Source: archive.org)

So who do we trust? Two or three generations ago, a lot of people would have opted for doctors, teachers, bank managers, clergymen, the police, solicitors. Not all of those groups have lasted well in this respect. Politicians may never have been especially trustworthy but trust in them was probably never quite as damaged or as threadbare as it is now.

Who else is there? Family, friends, perhaps neighbours – and? Some people ‘trust’ the internet or social media – or yes, journalists (some journalists).

‘Artists are the antennae of the race’, Ezra Pound wrote, remembering Shelley and adding, characteristically, ‘but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.’[1] Adrian Stokes wrote later, in Stones of Rimini, that ‘Poets alone are trustworthy interpreters’ – which sounds a little Poundian, and it should come as no surprise to learn that Stokes was drawn to the materials and settings of his major work by Pound’s Cantos.[2]

George Santayana, who had presumably had a few unlucky encounters at the local pub, wrote in his Soliloquies in England: ‘Trust the man who hesitates in his speech and is quick and steady in action, but beware of long arguments and long beards.’[3]

And here is John Ruskin—who did, indeed, sport a long beard, certainly in his later years and was not averse to long arguments—explaining in his Fors Clavigera (addressed, a wee bit optimistically, to ‘The Workmen of England’) some of the ramifications of his title:

Ruskin-1894

‘Certain authoritative conditions of life, of its happiness, and its honour, are therefore stated, in this book, as far as they may be, conclusively and indisputably, at present known. I do not enter into any debates, nor advance any opinions. With what is debateable I am unconcerned; and when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them. I attack only what cannot on any possible ground be defended; and state only what I know to be incontrovertibly true.’
‘You will therefore find that whatever is set down in Fors for you is assuredly true, – inevitable, – trustworthy to the uttermost, – however strange.*’

Followed by this excellent footnote: ‘*Observe, this is only asserted of its main principles; not of minor and accessory points. I may be entirely wrong in the explanation of a text, or mistake the parish schools of St. Matthias for St. Matthew’s, over and over again. I have so large a field to work in that this cannot be helped. But none of these minor errors are of the least consequence to the business in hand.’[4]

Now there was a – trustworthy – man with work to do. And rather wonderful, the comment that ‘when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them’. Lately, of course, a great many people feel no need to be informed about things or to know about things: why would they when they have opinions to voice?

Hindsight, even in fiction, is a wonderful thing. But—in or out of fiction—there is a need to adjust your opinions should the facts, or new knowledge of the facts, demand it. As Ford Madox Ford’s John Dowell remarks of Edward Ashburnham: ‘You would have said that he was just exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with. And I trusted mine—and it was madness.’[5]

 

References

[1] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 297.

[2] Adrian Stokes, The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 20, 26.

[3] George Santayana, ‘The British Character’, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922; Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1967), 32.

[4] John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), II, 379, 380.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16.

 

Weather or not

Window

Rain is skittering on the windows above my head. Rain again, the reign of rain. Tip tap. Or is it dot dash? Is it, perhaps, messaging? There’s a solid twenty-first-century word. Are you messaging, rain?

It might say: I can keep this up all day. Or even: I can keep this up forever, even after your stupid, aggressive, greedy, self-destructive species has wiped itself off the face of the earth. To which I reply: Too harsh by far. Lots of us are not like that at all. To which the rain says: So how did all you intelligent, peaceful, progressive, constructive people let this happen? To which I reply: I must go shopping now. . .

Yes, August! High summer, as comedians say. Colossal price hikes from us, as travel companies say, if quietly. In continental Europe, the weather is easing for some, though Italy and parts of the Balkans are still in the grip of a heat wave and parts of Greece too would still be uncomfortable for me. My younger daughter writes from Barcelona that it’s been twenty minutes since she had something to drink: she must go in search of fluids. Some British holidaymakers, warned away from swimming pools and beaches in Italy or Southern Spain must be a little confused to find themselves casting longing glances in the direction of home, where our weather forecasters try to vary the menu a little but with limited options. Sunshine and showers. Maybe sunshine between the showers. Showers this morning will give way to heavy rain in places. Rain, rain, rain.

William-Cobbett

August. William Cobbett, travelling early in that month in 1823, through southern English counties, rode into bad weather:

‘But, alas! Saint Swithin had begun his works for the day before I got on top of the hill. Soon after the two turnip-hoers had assured me that there would be no rain, I saw, beginning to poke up over the South Downs (then right before me) several parcels of those white, curled clouds that we call Judges’ Wigs. And they are just like Judges’ wigs. Not the parson-like things which the Judges wear when they have to listen to the dull wrangling and duller jests of the lawyers; but those big wigs which hang down about their shoulders, when they are about to tell you a little of their intentions, and when their very looks say, “Stand clear!” These clouds (if rising from the South West) hold precisely the same language to the great-coatless traveller. Rain is sure to follow them.’[1]

St Swithin’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithin’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.

An idea already current in the fourteenth century, apparently.[2] In a wholly or largely agricultural economy, weather is a crucial matter. We had an industrial revolution; agriculture’s proportionate contribution to the national economy has diminished hugely; but we are still, famously, preoccupied with our weather.

There have been periods in our history when other topics fought for—and, briefly, achieved—ascendancy. But those periods have usually coincided with wars. Mollie Panter-Downs, writing in August 1941, remarked on the weather being ousted as the primary subject of conversation. ‘Everyone talks about food.’[3]

Chateauwood

(Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917: photograph by Frank Hurley, who famously accompanied Mawson and Shackleton on expeditions to the Antarctic but was also official photographer with Australian forces in both World Wars. Australian War Memorial,  collection number E01220.)

War and weather, particularly extreme weather, have been frequently discussed just lately because of the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele (July–November 1917), when relentless and prodigious rainfall, the heaviest for thirty years, turned the battlefield into a lethal quagmire, where men and horses drowned in great pools of foul water.

‘“That agony returns,”’ Edmund Blunden wrote. ‘On July 31 the worst and most hated of the British offensives was begun, against all reason, all around or nearly all around Ypres. Reason had had no luck for weeks before’.[4]

CO_002252.IWM

(Canadian Stretcher Bearers carry wounded through the mud: Imperial War Museum)

There were moments of individual, rainy luck—rain or, rather, its cessation. Ernst Jünger wrote of a shell hitting the collapsing farmhouse which he’d sheltered in earlier that day because it was raining; now, without rain, he has stayed outside: ‘That’s the role of chance in war. More than elsewhere, small causes can have a vast effect.’[5]

Not long after that war, in fact, we find weather, specifically the implausible dream of prolonged, fine English weather advanced as characteristic of utopian politics, when the Dowager Duchess of Denver (not that Denver), mother of Dorothy Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey, in conversation with Inspector Parker, is admiring the handsomeness of Sir Julian Freke: ‘just exactly like William Morris, with that bush of hair and beard and those exciting eyes looking out of it—so splendid, these dear men always devoted to something or other—not but what I think socialism is a mistake—of course it works with all those nice people, too good and happy in art linen and the weather always perfect—Morris, I mean, you know—but so difficult in real life.’[6]

One of my teachers, a Buddhist, used to assure me that there was no such thing as ‘bad weather’—there was only weather. Yes, we need to be—one can’t, in all conscience, use the word ‘robust’ since it has been so misused and degraded by politicians recently—stalwart, doughty, if not weatherproof. As Doctor Johnson said to Doctor Brocklesby: ‘The weather indeed is not benign; but how low is he sunk whose strength depends upon the weather!’[7]

 

References

[1] William Cobbett, Rural Rides, ed. George Woodcock (1830 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 123.

[2] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 244.

[3] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes, edited by William Shawn; new preface by David Kynaston (London: Persephone Books, 2014), 194.

[4] Edmund Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected War Prose, edited with an introduction by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 129.

[5] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 196.

[6] Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923; London: New English Library, 1968), 93.

[7] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, introduction by Pat Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1338.

 

August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]

West-Mill-Welcombe-Devon

West Mill, Welcombe, Devon: http://www.literaryplaces.co.uk/?p=147

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]

Light-in-August-US-1932

Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking.

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]

Blackberries

And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]

 

References

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 52-53.

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Making Hay

Hay-Castle-2

Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh Marches, has a couple of dozen bookshops—and, curiously, that’s more or less the number of books that we bought during our stay there.

There are probably two useful guidelines in such a situation: firstly, if you’re trying to cull the absurd quantity of books in your house, don’t choose a place famous as ‘the town of books’ in which to spend a few days; secondly, if you do go anyway, don’t pretend that you’re not going to buy books while you’re there. Take a list rather than scrabble around to produce one, on a creased half-sheet of paper, while moaning ‘I can’t think, I’ve gone blank’, in the face of acres of packed shelving.

Firbank

We simply needed—one of us rather more than the other—a change of scene and a chance to relax. It was certainly a change; and she did relax. Hay was a good choice: the right size, the right location, the right atmosphere; a couple of good places to eat; some fine walks within easy reach. The rented apartment was ideally placed and pleasant to be in: unfussily but well furnished and equipped. Looking out on a castle, its high wall often lined with jackdaws, suited me pretty well.

Imagists-1930

There are some indifferent, and a few very good, bookshops among Hay’s two dozen. Richard Booth’s Bookshop (and café and cinema) is extraordinary but our best haul was probably in the Hay Cinema Bookshop—and the laurel wreath, appropriately, must go to the wonderful Poetry Bookshop.

Poetry_Bkshp_via_Biblio.com

(Poetry Bookshop via biblio.com)

 

Sociable introverts, unite!

Maxwell

Photo: Brookie Maxwell, via http://bookhaven.stanford.edu/

William Maxwell once wrote to Sylvia Townsend Warner about Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose memoirs he was reading: ‘she is a sociable introvert, like me, and life is not easy for such but it is bound to be interesting’.[1] Though less sociable than his wife Emily, Maxwell had ‘a genius for intimacy, a genius for making one feel singular and worthy and interesting, even [ . . . ] in rooms full of other people.’[2] It’s hardly exceptional, of course, for artists to be most comfortable in small groups or with individuals, a preference often intimately connected with their desire to practice that art in the first place.

Birmingham_Uni

I’ve been taking my own model of sociable introversion out into the world: firstly, to Birmingham University on Friday, to listen to three very interesting papers primarily on Ford Madox Ford; and then to take part in a panel presentation, also concerned with Ford, unsurprisingly. I was impressed by the other panellists and mildly dissatisfied with myself, which seems, on balance, the right way round.

Then, on Saturday evening, to At-Bristol, where a large crowd gave an enthusiastic welcome to Naomi Klein in conversation with Andrew Kelly, Bristol Festival of Ideas director, and then answering questions from the audience. Very impressive and articulate, she discussed the issues addressed in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, written in a few months, contrary to her usual practice. It’s ‘a guide to resistance in the age of Trump, grounded in the idea that simply resisting oppression is insufficient. We must decide as a society, Klein argues, not merely what atrocities we will not tolerate, but what we are prepared to build instead.’[3]

NaomiKlein

http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/naomi-klein/

So, at Saturday’s event, Klein was concerned to contextualise Donald Trump, ‘not an aberration but the logical extension of the worst and most dangerous trends of the past half-century’, and to identify the ways in which those trends use political and economic crises as pretexts for forcing through policies damaging to the welfare state, regulatory safeguards and environmental controls. She then moved beyond critique to measures for resistance and the importance of envisioning the society we actually want to live in.

Nemesia

Sunday was to be no more than a trip to the garden centre because, apparently, we needed more compost. A large sack, better make it two. A couple more pots and yes, some Nemesia. And a trellis for the clematis. One large or – better, two small ones, I think. Before that, though, the Andrew Marr Show came on to the BBC: always likely to provoke my wife into noisy heckling, as on this occasion. Yesterday’s blameworthy inanities emanated from Michael Gove, busily asserting that those who don’t benefit from a university education shouldn’t have to contribute to the costs of higher education, an argument that may go down well with some people for up to five seconds unless they apply some intelligent thought to it.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jul/02/michael-gove-mounts-defence-of-university-tuition-fees

There are two basic arguments here: firstly, that nearly everyone that pays tax at all will contribute to some services or sectors from which they don’t directly benefit: those who don’t have children will pay a portion of their taxes to the schools budget and people who always go by train will pay a portion of their taxes towards the building and maintenance of motorways and other road systems. It’s called, yes, general taxation. Secondly, every time you go to the doctor, take a prescription, drive through a tunnel or over a bridge, go into an office block or a hotel or step into a lift, you benefit from the doctor, the pharmacist, the microbiologist, the engineer, the architect, the chemist who went to university and studied and acquired expertise. If they get a higher-paid job as a result of that university education, they pay more tax – to the benefit of everyone (if you have responsible and equitable governance). Who would seriously argue that a nation does not benefit, as a whole, from having as great a proportion as possible of its citizens well-informed, capable of critical analysis, trained in problem-solving, educated?

We urgently need to change some narratives: around welfare, around tax, around housing, around education, around transport, around public provision. And we need to get well clear of the assumption that things are as they are because there’s no alternative. There is always an alternative: things are as they are because someone made a choice, someone prioritised one thing over another, someone signed the paper.

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.[4]

References

[1] In a letter of 8 April, 1964: Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 139. Maxwell must have been reading Ottoline: The Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell, edited by Robert Gathorne-Hardy (London: Faber, 1963).

[2] Paul Fox, ‘A Story in the Dark’, in A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations, edited by Charles Baxter, Michael Collier and Edward Hirsch (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 48-52 (49). See also, in the same volume, Donna Tartt’s ‘Mr Maxwell’, 19-33.

[3] Laurie Penny, ‘Take Back the Power’, an interview with Naomi Klein, New Statesman (30 June—6 July 2017), 35.

[4] Dylan Thomas, ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper’, The Poems, edited by Daniel Jones (London: Dent, 1971), 66.

Remembering ‘Adlestrop’

Adlestrop-station

(Via http://www.urban75.org/blog)

On 24 June 1914, a train drew up at a country station on the main Great Western Railway line which ran from London to Oxford, Worcester and Malvern (the station finally closed in 1966, a victim of the Beeching report, more suitably termed ‘the Beeching axe’, which brought about the closure of a great many railways and the loss of local services on a huge scale). Among the passengers were Edward Thomas and his wife Helen, on their way to visit Robert Frost and his wife Elinor in Ledbury.

Thomas wrote in his field notebook for that day: ‘Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.’

When the poem was written around six months later, he commented in a later notebook: ‘Train stopping outside station at Adlestrop June 1914.’[1] A memory refreshed.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.[2]

Four stanzas; four lines in each, rhyming abcb. This must be one of the most familiar poems in English, certainly among British readers. Voted number twenty in one survey I saw, it emerged as joint third in the most-requested poems on Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme over some thirty-five years, beside Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ and behind Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’.

The first stanza of ‘Adlestrop’ strikes me as a delicious example of lines that you’ve looked at a dozen times and never really seen. It begins with ‘Yes.’ A question has been asked but it’s one we don’t hear. Does the poet interrogate himself or is it an unseen and unidentified interlocutor or is the reader the implied questioner? And then: the speaker remembers Adlestrop but not, apparently, the place; only the name. He remembers, in fact, the sign, ‘Adlestrop’ because the express train drew up there ‘unwontedly’. That last word was, in an earlier draft, ‘unexpectedly’; at another stage, ‘Against the custom’ or ‘against its custom’.[3] William Cooke links the close of the poem with a passage in a prose work by Thomas, Beautiful Wales, published ten years earlier.[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson sees the ‘germ’ of the poem in the first chapter of The Heart of England (1906).[5] Thomas ‘conflated details from different stops’.[6] Does it matter? Frankly, no. The abiding mystery is: how does it work? This short, apparently simple poem, composed of unremarkable language, no striking rhymes, that clings to the memory like a burr. How is it done? It’s a question asked, of course, of all effective art. One item of interest is precisely that ‘unwontedly’: ‘exactly the word he wanted’, Matthew Hollis remarks.[7] Yes. I had thought, vaguely, that it meant ‘unwillingly’, against one’s instincts or inclinations but ‘unwonted’ means only unaccustomed or unusual. The train drawing up there ‘unwontedly’ was something distinctive, marking the occasion out. He ‘emphasizes the unusual nature of the stop, which in turn creates a slight sense of unease.’[8]

edward thomas 1913_14_small

(Thomas in 1913-1914, via Edward Thomas Fellowship:
http://www.edward-thomas-fellowship.org.uk/home.html)

I noted earlier that the poem begins with ‘Yes’. But, in fact, like Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ or several poems by Marianne Moore, it begins quite definitely with the title. ‘Adlestrop’. The name occurs three times: title, opening line and eighth line (‘Adlestrop – only the name’). Thomas ‘wrings from the name “Adlestrop”, by suspending it at the line-end, a series of unspoken associations with ideal rural communities.’ But ‘when he returns halfway through the poem to repeat that “What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name”, it is a signal for those associations to accelerate away from his reach.’[9] Ideal rural communities? Another critic suggests that, in the poem, ‘a scene glimpsed in a brief moment from a stationary train seems to open upon an ever-widening prospect of England’s central counties. These are common sights of the English countryside, but the moment is visionary’. It is, he adds, ‘an ideal England mirrored in the stillness and solitude of the poet’s mind’.[10] Elsewhere, it’s described as ‘the definitive English idyll.’[11]

Only a poem of permanent interest and value could, I suppose, generate such a wealth of interpretation and exegesis. The apparent simplicity is, of course, central to the challenge that so many readers find there. But one thing that strikes me and that seems often to be  absent from discussions of the poem is that, while, in June 1914, this country was not at war with Germany, in January 1915 it was. Thomas enlisted in July 1915, after an intense struggle, influenced to some extent by Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, itself prompted in part by Frost’s experience of Thomas’s indecisiveness.[12] And if ‘Adlestrop’ was ‘an idyll’ or concerned to present ‘an ideal England’, it was in direct and active response to the forces that threatened it. Asked what it was that he was fighting for, Thomas famously ‘picked up a pinch of earth and answered: “Literally, for this”’.[13]

Farjeon

(Eleanor Farjeon)

So Ford Madox Ford’s persona, the poet Gringoire, voices similar concerns in No Enemy: ‘“I wonder,” Gringoire asked again that evening, “if other people had, like myself, that feeling that what one feared for was the land – not the people but the menaced earth with its familiar aspect.”’[14] In her notes to another Thomas poem, ‘The Manor Farm’, Edna Longley quotes Thomas’s essay ‘England’: ‘I believe . . . that all ideas of England are developed, spun out, from such a centre into something large or infinite, solid or aëry . . . that England is a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home’.[15] This is a conviction—a crucial one—that crops up in many literary contexts: that the national or universal, the abstract, the grandiose, must begin from the local, the concrete, the known.

That fifth line, ‘The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat’, may conjure memories of the climactic scene of the film of The Railway Children, whereby Jenny Agutter reduced grown men to tears, but given our wealth of retrospective images, I think also of battlefields wreathed in smoke or mist, poor visibility, an image real enough but itself a metaphor for the blindness or at least uncertain vision of those directing, prosecuting and suffering the Great War.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round hum, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(Yes. I remember ‘Adlestrop’.)

 

References

[1] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 176.

[2] Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 51. This was one of sixteen poems that Thomas wrote between 4 January and 23 January 1915: Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 310.

[3] See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 177, on ‘unwontedly’.

[4] William Cooke, Edward Thomas: A Critical Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), 121-122.

[5] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 151.

[6] The Annotated Collected Poems, 176.

[7] Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 204.

[8] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 314.

[9] Andrew Motion, The Poetry of Edward Thomas (London: The Hogarth Press, 1991), 4.

[10] Michael Kirkham, The Imagination of Edward Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 116.

[11] Stan Smith, Edward Thomas (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 11.

[12] Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 232-236.

[13] Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997), 154.

[14] Ford, No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 26.

[15] The Annotated Collected Poems, 165: the essay is in The Last Sheaf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928).